An “A” is an “A” whether Cobb, Coweta, Cherokee or Chatham

A new book says high school grades are the best predictor of which students complete college. AJC Photo/

A new book says high school grades are the best predictor of which students complete college. AJC Photo/ ERIK S LESSER

When the University of Georgia rejects applicants from elite suburban schools, disappointed parents often complain that their child’s seat went to a less deserving student from rural or inner-city schools, where the competition isn’t as steep.

The expectation is that A’s from rural or urban schools are easier to attain, that good grades in those schools are handed out like Skittles.

However, it turns out that those A’s do stand for something. Those impressive grades, regardless of the high school that issued them, are the most powerful predictor of college completion rates.

They signify that the students are disciplined, hard working and likely to do well in college, according to the new book “Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities.”

The book stresses the importance of not only starting college but graduating, maintaining that the real payoff from higher education comes from running the last mile and crossing the finishing line.
Yet fewer than 60 percent of college freshmen graduate in four years, a tremendous waste of money and productivity.

For example, the four-year graduation rate at UGA is 52 percent; based on the 2002 entering class, the six-year graduation rate is 79.7 percent.

In sifting through data from 200,000 students at 68 colleges, the book’s authors unravel several myths, beginning with the one that the A’s in poor urban and rural high schools come easier and mean less than those awarded in tony suburban campuses.

“An ‘A’ from the fancy, affluent school is worth a little bit more, but that ‘A’ average still means something,” says Harvard research fellow Matthew M. Chingos, who co-wrote “Crossing the Finish Line” with William Bowen and Michael McPherson. Bowen is a former president of Princeton University; McPherson is past president of Macalester College.
In their research, the authors found that students with exemplary grades from weak high schools still graduate at a high rate from whatever college they attend.

Whether it comes from a struggling urban school, a sparkling suburban campus or a lackluster rural one, it seems that “a grade is a grade is a grade,” conclude the authors.

That finding is supported by research into the contentious 1997 Texas Automatic Admissions Law, which guaranteed high school graduates in the top 10 percent of their class that they could attend the state school of their choice.

The law was designed to broaden opportunities for students from rural Texas schools at the premier public institutions, which had been oversubscribed with middle-class suburban kids.

After a decade, the law continues to rankle suburban Texas parents who maintain that their bright graduates of high schools with stiff competition lose out in admissions to the state’s flagships to less qualified peers from less rigorous high schools.

However, at both the University of Texas and Texas A&M, those admitted under the top-10-percent guarantee produced higher grade point averages, higher retention rates and higher graduation rates than those not admitted under the 10 percent plan.

“Crossing the Finish Line” also debunks another widespread myth, that minority students with good grades from poor high schools are often out of their league in demanding colleges.
Not so, says the book. “Our research indicates the black male students who went to more selective institutions graduated at higher, not lower, rates than did similarly prepared black students who went to less selective institutions.”

The book’s advice: Students from all backgrounds should enroll in the most challenging university that will accept them.

Unfortunately, a surprising number of academically talented minority and low-income students bypass the better schools, often not even applying, in favor of less prestigious campuses.

“We call it undermatching,” Chingos says. “These students are not applying to a selective college that would surely admit them and where they would be more likely to graduate.”
More selective colleges provide a peer environment where graduation is the norm, says Chingos.
“If you go to one of those schools, there’s a stigma if you don’t graduate. But if you go to a place where half the kids don’t graduate, then you don’t stick out.”

Chingos says undermatching could be addressed even as school systems struggle with budget cuts.

“It’s not that it’s an easy problem to fix,” he says, “but it’s easier than fixing secondary schools.”

“If we come up with ways to help poor kids navigate the college admissions process by giving the same advantages that high socioeconomic parents give to their kids, we would improve attainment and narrow disparities,” Chingos says.

n the past, a low graduation rate was greeted as a sign of a college’s high standards, says Chingos.

“But there is mounting research that there are a lot of kids who should be able to get a college degree if they just got a little more support and better advising,” he says. “They would benefit and society would benefit.”

In reading this book and interviewing one of the authors, what struck me was the finding that the drive that makes a teenager a top student in high school, no matter the school’s quality, is the key to college success.

In Georgia, there is a bit of snobbery among metro schools toward their rural counterparts. It would be interesting if UGA could look at its data on the completion rate of top students by high school.

It is also illuminating to me that students have better completion rates at better colleges. (Please note that the studies compare kids of like abilities and grades across campuses, so it is not because the kids in those better colleges are better students.)

One of things that the book talks about is creating community in college, that students have higher completion rates when they are connected and when they have a support group . (The Posse program is a good example.)

The book endorsed honor colleges and small learning communities, which are now offered on many Georgia campuses.

I also want to note that the strategies to keep students in college duplicate the ones being discussed to keep kids in high school. It all seems to come down to giving a student a sense of belonging, a support network and a caring adult or two. That was also the topic of one of the workshops I attended last week at the UGA conference. I will write about that later in the week. (I think it is easier said than done.)

Lots to discuss here, especially the vindication of A’s at rural and urban schools. If those A averages translate to higher college completion rates because they are valid surrogate measures of good work habits and drive, then I think we have to reconsider all our laments about grade inflation.

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

26 comments Add your comment


October 5th, 2009
10:08 am

Wow! Why do you assume that the A’s from a rural or intercity school are worth less than an A from a suburban school?

Maureen Downey

October 5th, 2009
10:20 am

In metro Atlanta, I think there is a belief that rural schools and inner city schools go easier on students. It is not at all uncommon for parents from high competition suburban high schools to maintain that their B students would be A students in many other systems that don’t have the same reputation for education excellence.
Likewise, I have had friends move to Northeastern states where schools assume that students coming from Georgia are behind. This weekend, someone who moved to the South from New York told me that her child was a year ahead in many of his subjects when he arrived here.
I think these stereotypes are fairly widespread.


October 5th, 2009
10:56 am

Is it stereotyping or reality? The next question is why are my children in a highly competitive high school? All this work for nothing, now that takes the cake.


October 5th, 2009
11:00 am

This is very interesting and makes for a good discussion! Heck, you hear some of those same comments between schools in the same district, especially where there are varying socioeconomic statuses. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how much ‘tracking’ is done once a students leaves high school and goes to college for us to make a true determination of this.

Maureen Downey

October 5th, 2009
11:07 am

I don’t think all that work is for nothing, because well-prepared kids do well in college and beyond. I think the finding tells us that the drive and discipline it takes to be a top student – no matter the school – helps an individual in the college setting as well.
Even if you go into the lowest performing schools, the very top students are always impressive. They are well spoken. They are diligent. They want to do well.
And they do.


October 5th, 2009
11:53 am

We have had students come from some of the ‘better’ private schools in the area that were behind our students.

V for Vendetta

October 5th, 2009
11:57 am


I simply don’t buy this. I have a hard time believing that an A at a school like Brookwood or Lassiter is equivalent to an A at a school like South Tifton High. (I’ll admit it; I made that one up.)

Still, I teach at one of the “good” schools in the metro area, and I get students from schools around my own county who don’t know their @ss from a hole in the ground. They are academically behind, and I’m not just talking about the lower-level kids or average kids. We see the same problems with Honors, Gifted, and some Homeschooled kids as well.

I know they take class level into account when applying to college, but I still have difficulty swallowing that a 3.5 at my school is NOT as good or better than a 4.0 in the stix. You can call that arrogant if you want, but, from my perspective in the classroom, it seems to be accurate.

Maureen Downey

October 5th, 2009
12:08 pm

The researcher probably would say that the A from your school may have more clout behind it, but that the A from the weaker school is still meaningful in terms of whether a student will complete college — which is the focus of the book. It goes back to the question of personal drive, which I think is often underestimated in calculating success rates. (Although not by you.)


October 5th, 2009
12:14 pm

I have not problem with the top students at “questionable” high schools getting into good colleges. However, I don’t think the average student (A-B) at a low performing high school is comparable to the A-B students at one of the top high schools. I would hope that colleges would use the students SAT/ACT scores and AP courses taken to fill in the blanks.


October 5th, 2009
1:40 pm

1. V and I had a vigorous discussion about a similar topic a while ago:
Suppose a school needs to choose between admitting “Bob” and “Fred”.
Bob has a 3.5 GPA and 1250 SAT score, attends a highly competitive metro ATL school, and is the only child of a married mom and dad who are college graduates.
Fred has a 3.5 GPA and 1200 SAT score, attends a podunk school in south GA, and is one of 4 children living with his never-married mother in a trailer park.
V would, in the interest of being “objective”, choose Bob; I would pick Fred all day every day and twice on Sunday.

2) So there’s a “contentious 1997 Texas Automatic Admissions Law” guaranteeing adimission to the top 10% of graduates to any public Texas university (I cited this law in the above discussion). I’m sure that if Barack Obama had signed this into law, we’d have read that in your article. Texas, 1997, hmmm. Who WAS the governor of Texas back then I-cant-quite-remember. I guess by definition it’s impossible for George W. Bush to EVER had done a single good thing in his political career. Must’ve been someone else.


October 5th, 2009
3:04 pm

I think it cuts both ways. I agree that students who get straight As generally have attitudes and study habits that make them highly successful in colleges BUT I do think that there are a few high schools in the metro area where hard work and strong study habits will often be rewarded with a B or in certain situations a C. Reading this post reminded me of a post by Laura Diamond a few months ago about a girl from Walton HS who was waitlisted at UGA because her GPA did not hit that critical 3.5 mark. Yet she had made mostly 5s on the AP exams that she took and had a strong SAT score. Given that school’s track record in academic achievement, I don’t think this girl was a “slacker”. So I think while we should rightly praise strong academic records, the “clout” of the school is not an insignificant variable. So if I were an admissions officer, I might be more willing to take that 3.5 GPA student if the high school had a reputation for rigorous grading versus a school where doing your homework is sufficient for getting an A.

Maureen Downey

October 5th, 2009
3:20 pm

ATLNative, I did a search on Walton and could not find Laura’s post. This situation sounds odd to me as I know several kids with less than 3.5 averages admitted to UGA this year, most with SAT scores of 1,200 or higher on the old scale and with 3,’s, 4’s and 5’s on five or more AP tests.
I still question whether kids are knocked out of the running at UGA and other schools by stiff competition within their own high schools. (The admissions folks at colleges always tell me that this is not the case, that applicants are judged on their merit and not in relation to how many classmates are in the running. I still wonder what happens when 25 top students from a high school apply to the same prestigious college. )
Anyone share any insights on this question?


October 5th, 2009
3:42 pm

I found it – It’s the April 1 post. Here it is:

A senior from Walton High in Marietta sent me an email saying the high-achieving school made it harder for her to get into college.

The girl said guidance counselors pressured her to take 11 AP classes and she earned mainly Bs and Cs. She says she would have earned As in easier classes.

She thought the tougher classes would give her a better shot of getting into college. But she was rejected from Georgia Tech and waitlisted at UGA even though she has a 3.6 GPA and SAT score of 1900.

(The girl wrote that she’s president of one student club, vice president of another and a minority. I take it she thought these things would boost her shot at admission.)

College admission officers have told me they look at coursework and grades when reviewing applications, so it would seem like the guidance counselors gave the girl good advice.

But the recession has led to an increase in applications at state colleges across the nation, making this an especially competitive admissions year.

Was the school right to encourage the girl to take so many AP courses? What advice would you have given?

I think the girl also made a few comments explaining her situation further.

Maureen Downey

October 5th, 2009
3:56 pm

Thanks for finding the post. I think the “C’s” are a problem, whether AP classes or not. I would like to know her AP test scores. It would be unusual to get a C in the class and a 5 on the AP test. The more likely scenario, according to the AP, is an A in the class and a low grade on the test.
I was talking to my co-worker about this – he graduated UGA a few years ago – and we both wondered about the value-added from clubs and activities. How can a college judge what it means to be president of a club? Or the amount of time and effort demanded? My co-worker and I both knew of clubs in high school that never met or had five members. (He said kids in his school started clubs for resume-enhancement purposes.)
I also wonder why the girl was rejected at Tech as well. Tech has a far higher admission rate than UGA.
There is probably more to this story.


October 5th, 2009
3:57 pm

In response to Maureen’s question “what happens when 25 top students from a high school apply to the same prestigious college,” I have a hard time believing there’s no impact to the applicant. What I think likely happens, is colleges will admit more students from a high achieving school (I think the AJC has run some stats on which schools send the most people to UGA and the usual suspects top the list) but whether that greater number is commensurate with the academic achievement of the school in question is unclear. Admittedly, I’m not familiar with how Walton’s grading curve/class rigor goes as I don’t have children in that district but if 11 AP classes is common for a student in that school, is it really fair to reject students because they only got a 3.6 in such an environment?

Maureen Downey

October 5th, 2009
4:01 pm

ATLNative, I have to add that the student’s counselors didn’t do her any favors with 11 AP classes if she wasn’t doing well in them.
I know there are remarkable kids who can take 11 AP classes and score high on all the tests, but they are rare. The UGA admissions director told me once that they were looking for six to seven in the students admitted to the honors program. But that also depended on whether the school even offered AP classes. They couldn’t penalize a student for not taking AP if the school had none or just a few. (Of course, the virtual high school is an option there.)


October 5th, 2009
4:03 pm

I think that’s the issue where V and I crossed swords.
Some high schools in GA just about never have a graduate attend UGA or Tech, while others, helped by high SAT and AP scores, send a sizable cohort every year.

As a society, we cannot afford to withhold excellent educations from our best and brightest, and the top 10% of EVERY high school should qualify for those opportunities. I think that Texas’ solution is an excellent way to address this; much better than noxious, skin-color-based academic “affirmative action”.


October 5th, 2009
4:28 pm


Everyone certainly has a right to attend college but IMO, every plan has winners and losers. If we adopted the top 10% plan, what would likely happen would be a form of geographic affirmative action, which may or may not be a good idea. The winners would be students from schools that are currently underserved; the losers would be the good but not top 10% students in schools that are currently well-represented. If we accept that not every high school is equally rigorous (a fair assumption I believe), then you may well be lowering standards for some and raising standards for other. Given this dynamic, I am not yet convinced that this tradeoff is worth its costs.

I certainly can understand the case where a student from a rural, poorer area does not have access to AP classes or testing but IMO, college admissions officers should be able to determine that this student demonstrated a passion for learning in spite of this gap (like Maureen mentioned, taking virtual classes or having strong teacher recommendations that detail the student’s achievement in context of their situation). A top 10% plan isn’t a substitute for this.


October 5th, 2009
4:41 pm

Is an A an A?? Short answer, No.

My oldest made straight A’s throughout her 12 years at our semi-rural public school. She took every AP class that was available. She graduated 4th in her class and probably would have graduated 2nd if she had dropped down from the AP classes like a couple of the other kids did.

First year at UGA was a struggle. Took her about two semesters to get on track. She told me later that “she didn’t know how to study.”

Think about that one for a minute. A top student at your school who took the hardest curriculum you had to offer doesn’t know how to study??

Lesson learned. We pulled the youngest out and placed her in a top notch private school. Again, a straight A student who was now about one year or so behind her private school peers.

Probably the biggest difference is that a larger school from Cobb or Gwinnett can put 20 students of comparable ability into an AP class and push them all to a higher level. Our school might have 5 students who truly belong in that same AP class and as a result, would have to “ease up” in order to get the other 15 through it.

On the downside, my youngest says that it would probably be easier for her to get into UGA if she were still at our public school. Her GPA would probably be much higher than at her private school.

On the other hand, I feel she is better prepared for college level work.


October 5th, 2009
6:20 pm

I’m surprised by the study results, because I’ve noticed that frequently an A from Ms. Smith takes more effort than an A from Ms. Jones, in the same subject in the same school.


October 5th, 2009
6:46 pm

Most importantly, I think the effect of the HOPE scholarship skews the results so much that the conclusions reached by the authors would not be true in Georgia. (Both of the authors are well respected academics). I don’t think the study takes into account a number of important variables, including the effects of self-selection, parental education and SES, etc.

Personally, I have seen too many “top” students at our local, rural system, struggle in college. I wonder what variables were controlled for in the study? What dataset was used, and did they use a multiple regression model (or what) to analyze?


October 5th, 2009
11:02 pm

You’re correct. Under any scheme, there will certainly be winners and losers.

The issue here is hypothesis testing. The task at hand is, or should be, to determine in advance who will succeed at our flagship universities and who will fail. IF we had some set of measurements we could take to predict this with 100% accuracy, then the whole discussion of HOW to figure out WHO to let in would be rendered moot – we’d use the 100% accurate test. To do otherwise would be wasting precious seats on kids who could never graduate – not “fair” to students who would succeed, or for that matter to the fore-ordained failures.

You want to confer advantage on your kids so that they can be successful – me too. So we make sure they go to good schools, work with them and their teachers when they have trouble, get any other outside help they may need – this is all good.

At the college level, this degree of parental involvement will end, or at least it should.
We both know that, when you’re comparing Bob and Fred’s 1250 and 1200 above, we’re not comparing apples to apples – the circumstances are very different.

At my kids’ elementary school, the “gifted” criteria indicate that gifted students should be at or above the 95th percentile intelligence – and yet approximately one third of the students are “gifted” (to parry any ad hominem attacks in advance, both of my kids are among the “gifted”). REALLY – 33% of the kids are in the top 5%? I find this to be statistically wildly unlikely.

Using existing admissions criteria, at some high schools 20% of the kids can succeed at UGA or GA Tech, and at other schools only 0%, or .1% can.

I contend that the criteria that are currently being used need some refinement – this is not a likely distribution of innate ability.

As a society, we cannot afford to exclude our best and brightest from our flagship universities. We need all the talent we can get – even talent that has been obscured by lousy parenting and rotten schools.

If being in the top 10% of a high school class is the too high a number to be a good predictor of success, I’m guessing that there is a right number – 8%, 5%, 3%? We owe it to ourselves, and our economic competitiveness as a nation to figure out the right number, and use it accordingly.

jim d

October 6th, 2009
8:23 am


the one variable not even mentioned on this blog is the students DESIRE to Succeed.

Seems to me that one would out weigh almost any previous HS GPA.

The desire to do well, coupled with the self discipline required to do so can make nearly any student a success. The problem being we have no accurate means of measuring in advance the desire and discipline that a student will demonstrate once they fly the security of home. (as evidenced by the number of students that lose HOPE in Georgia every year.)

The college PARTY scene is a tough one to ignore and I’ve witnessed many students with great HS. GPA’s fall into that trap. On the other hand I’ve witnessed young people with average GPA’s attending colleges that hold strict discipline standards (military school) that actually have set aside study periods every day and that teach students HOW to STUDY and succeed at the college level.

I realize that Military academies are not for every student but perhaps our state colleges could borrow a page from their play book.


October 6th, 2009
12:25 pm

Good grades generally indicate that a student has a few important components that contribute to success: intelligence, work ethic, desire to do well, and perseverance. Various reports have slammed Georgia teachers with accusations of grade inflation. Catlady even claims here that the research used for this blog topic would probably be skewed because of HOPE grade inflation in Georgia.

jim d rightly makes his point about desire. This is something that can not be measured by tests and it is a human characteristic that can kick in at any time. The reality is that desire to succeed is at the heart of achieving the American dream. This is part of the reason why we have our schools set up the way we do. When someone finally gets the DESIRE to succeed, it is possible for them to get back into school or college. They are able to earn a degree, learn a trade, start a business, and go for it.


October 6th, 2009
1:20 pm

I am confident that grade inflation is real and substantial, which is why I am fixated on percentile ranking (top X%).

Relative ranking AMONG students should be fairly solid even if most teachers are passing out A’s and B’s like candy. Generally, at a particular school I would expect a kid in the 90th percentile to be more capable than a kid in the 80th percentile.

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